Saturday, November 5, 2011

Following the High-Speed Rail Devil Over a Cliff

Why does it take an East Coast newspaper to tell us what we in California should have known for a very long time? That China is not an appropriate role model for the US.  That's not startling news.  That's not rocket surgery.

Obama, for all his many virtues, seems blind to the fact that China's HSR program is a huge disappointment, even to the Chinese. And, with a billion and a half of the world's population, they really need rail.  

Especially with recent revelations of corruption, shoddy workmanship, stolen technologies from other countries, and worst of all, the horrific accident/derailment on a viaduct which dumped a number of passenger rail cars down to the ground and cost (at least) 40 lives plus many more injuries, we certainly need to keep China as a nation to emulate at arm's distance.

However, one aspect of their high-speed rail agenda and our similar intentions are totally congruent; they and we are doing this for purposes of prestige; that is, political propaganda.  The very phrase that President Obama uses in conjunction with HSR, "winning the future," suggests that the global economy consists of races with winners and losers and the country with the most and fastest high-speed trains, somehow wins the race.  That, of course, is absurd.

Nonetheless, HSR is an integral part of the Administration's and the Democratic Party's platform; what they believe they must deliver to the American people.  No attention is being paid to the realities behind this vision; the stunning, un-affordable costs, the fact that these are luxury trains only for the affluent, that they will, if built, require permanent government subsidies, and worst of all, that the federal government is not paying for most of it beyond some very limited seed-money initial contributions.

While all the glamorous glories of HSR have been touted by the Department of Transportation, starting in the last year or so, with massive national unemployment the most severe problem for this Administration, high-speed rail has now come to be regarded as a jobs program, reliant on stimulus dollars channeled through the Federal Railroad Administration. The fact that it would be a near-useless train we don't need is now irrelevant.

This new policy and high-speed rail rationale shifts the vision from a futuristic world of elegant travel, to a a more immediate dirty construction world whereby unemployed workers find jobs building viaducts, cutting tunnels and constructing elegant train stations. This, regretfully, is another fantasy being sold as federal policy. 

Far fewer Chinese workers were employed building their railroads than we assume and are promised than will be required here in California or in the US.  This is equally true of other nations that have built their high-speed rail systems integral with and on top of their existing passenger rail systems.  As a jobs program, HSR will merely scratch the surface of the state's and the nation's problem.

The United States, still the most advanced nation in terms of infrastructure, would do far better to see to it that our existing infrastructure is maintained and repaired, even upgraded, rather than seeking to enter "races" that are not, metaphorically speaking, our game anyhow.  We are no longer, regardless of the Amtrak ridership increases, a passenger-rail-using nation.  Except in the busiest transit using Northeast Corridor, only localized urban and regional commuter rail makes any contribution to the transit needs of the major metropolitan population centers. Inter-city transit neither needs, nor can we afford, the  cost/inefficiencies of high-speed rail. 

Obama needs to get over his China envy

By Jonah Goldberg
8:00 a.m. EDT, November 5, 2011

Up to 40 million Chinese people still live in caves. That's more than the populations of Texas and Illinois, combined. In fairness, a fraction of these caves are apparently pretty nice, complete with electricity and well-compacted dirt floors. But that's grading on a curve because, well, they're still caves.

Meanwhile, 21 million Chinese live below what the Communist Party calls the "absolute poverty" line. That sounds pretty good if you have in mind our poverty line, which is just under $11,000 per year for an individual and roughly $22,000 for a family of four. The absolute poverty rate in China is $90 a year, or $7.50 per month. And 35 million live on less than $125 per year. Hundreds of millions of Chinese live on $1 or $2 a day.

Michael Levy, who recently wrote a book on his stint as a Peace Corps worker in rural China (yes, China still asks for Peace Corps help) put it well in an interview with NPR: "Imagine that there's a country exactly like the United States. Exactly the same size. It's got the same cities. It's got the same number of rich people and poor people. It's just like us. And now add 1 billion peasants. That's China."

And yet that's the country President Obama insists we need to emulate. "Everybody's watching what's going on in Beijing right now with the Olympics," then-candidate Obama told an audience in Virginia in 2008. "Think about the amount of money that China has spent on infrastructure. Their ports, their train systems, their airports are vastly superior to us now, which means if you are a corporation deciding where to do business you're starting to think, Beijing looks like a pretty good option."

Mr. Obama has returned to campaign mode and his fear-China refrain. To listen to President Obama, China's beating us in some sort of infrastructure race. "Folks in Congress are also going to get a chance to decide ... whether our construction workers should sit around doing nothing while China builds the best railroads, the best schools, the best airports in the world."

Now maybe we could use more infrastructure spending, but China's got nothing to do with it. The reason China has invested massively in infrastructure is simply that it has relatively little of it. America has 5,194 airports with paved runways (the only kind I use, how about you?). That's more than 11 times China's 442. In fact, you can add up the paved airports of the next 10 countries combined, and America beats them with more than a thousand airports to spare. We have nearly twice the roadways China does and almost three times the railways.

Ah, but China is investing in high-speed rail! Which, we are told, will help us "win the future." Except China has, in the words of the London Financial Times, "slammed the brakes" on its high-speed rail program for a slew of safety and economic reasons.

What people don't often mention is that we have the best freight system in the world (in Europe, they move people on rails and cargo on roads; we mostly do the opposite because we're so much more spread out). That's why Warren Buffett -- the president's favorite billionaire -- has invested massively in freight rail. Alas, switching to high-speed rail in the U.S. would seriously threaten the efficiency of our system.

Obviously, China's a formidable economic player and a growing military and diplomatic power. But only a fool would trade our problems for theirs (even though Mr. Obama has reportedly told friends he envies the president of China for having an easier job). China's health and safety standards are abysmal compared with America's. China's air is crunchy, its rivers often flammable. Their housing bubble could make ours look like a minor correction. Demographically, China is still on target to get old before it gets rich.

Moreover, China's social fabric is in dire need of repair. Just consider the recent horrifying footage of a 2-year-old toddler who was struck by two vehicles and was left to die in agony in the middle of a busy street as passersby ignored her. The New York Times reported this summer that in some regions, it is common for officials to snatch newborn babies from parents -- and sell them. Indeed, China has a thriving market in children. And do you really think our problems with income inequality are worse than China's?

Oh, and let's not forget: It's still an autocratic police state.

President Obama is hardly alone in his effort to mythologize China in order to justify expansion of government. Times columnist Tom Friedman -- who has written often of his envy for China's authoritarian system -- begins his new book comparing the unreliable escalators at his neighborhood subway station with a glitzy convention center in China, in order to suggest that China is winning the future. It's as instructive as comparing his mansion in Bethesda, Md., to a Chinese cave.

Jonah Goldberg is a syndicated columnist. His email is

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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